June 10, 2008
You Could Look It Up
Though the Rangers are having what might seem to be a typically indifferent season, Josh Hamilton continues to amaze. In his second season back in the game after seemingly permanently sidelining himself with substance abuse problems, the center fielder is batting .315/.362/.596 and is leading the American League with 69 RBI. As with Tim Raines in 1987-the year that the Rock came to the majors on May 2, cold, with no spring training (the result of baseball's brilliant collusion policy on free agents) and batted .350 in his first ten games-Hamilton is making this look too easy.
Normally we don't make too big a deal about RBI because as a statistic they don't indicate very much about a player, saying more about the quality of the lineup he plays in and where he bats in that lineup. Bobby Valentine, one of the few managers to get it, once said that RBI are a team stat, and that's how we tend to look at them as well. Even so, Hamilton's RBI total is worthy of some praise. If you look at our RBI Report, you will note that he is currently leading the majors in the percentage of his baserunners driven in, with 26 percent. This is well above average. If you look through the report, you will see that the average for driving in baserunners in most seasons centers around 14 percent, and that 26 percent just misses topping our survey, which covers the last 50 years. Here is where Hamilton would rank among hitters with 400 or more plate appearances:
Rank Hitter Team Year PA ROB OBI OBI% 1 George Brett KCA 1980 515 349 94 27 2t Kirby Puckett MIN 1994 482 348 92 26 2t Josh Hamilton TEX 2008 290 198 52 26 4t Andres Galarraga COL 1996 691 405 103 25 4t Bill Buckner CHN 1981 453 258 65 25 4t Tommy Davis LAN 1962 711 510 126 25 4t Dante Bichette COL 1996 694 447 110 25 4t Andres Galarraga COL 1993 506 310 76 25 9t Tony Gwynn SDN 1997 651 422 102 24 9t Frank Howard LAN 1962 538 365 88 24 9t Hal McRae KCA 1982 676 441 106 24
What's fascinating about this list is that it's not only a record of outstanding hitting with runners on base, it's also a tribute to missed opportunity to break one of the game's seemingly untouchable records, Hack Wilson's single-season standard for RBI, 191, set in the bouncy-bouncy rabbit-ball season of 1930 (for more on which see last week's column.
With a large number of runners on base, Hamilton's percentage of runners driven in would be more than sufficient to break Hack Wilson's record if sustained over a full season; all it would take is a sufficient number of baserunners. Unfortunately, the players having the best seasons with runners on base have never seen the greatest number of baserunners. The most baserunners that a batter has seen in the last half-century was 573. The beneficiary was-and this seems grossly unfair, somehow-Operation Shutdown himself, Derek Bell, while playing with the 1996 Astros. Unfortunately, his percentage of runners driven in was just slightly above average at 17 percent, so he finished the year with only 113 RBI, 17 of them coming from driving himself in on his own home runs. A Hamiltonian 26 percent would have netted 149 RBI. Add in another 40 or so RBI on home runs, and Hamilton would have been a lucky hit away from Hack Wilson.Baserunner Buffet: Seasons with the Most Runners On Base
Rank Hitter Team Year ROB OBI OBI% 1 Derek Bell HOU 1996 573 96 16.8 2 George Bell CHA 1992 557 87 15.6 3 Bret Boone SEA 2001 556 104 18.7 4 Mike Greenwell BOS 1988 553 97 17.5 5 Johnny Bench CIN 1974 552 96 17.4 6 Bill Buckner BOS 1986 551 84 15.2 7t Andre Thornton CLE 1982 550 84 15.3 7t Cecil Fielder DET 1993 550 87 15.8 7t Tino Martinez NYA 1997 550 97 17.6 10 Miguel Tejada BAL 2004 546 116 21.2
Part of the problem here is that none of these players hit with quite enough power to match the old Hack-master. To score that many runners, a batter not only needs a high average, but a high slugging percentage as well, because it takes extra bases to move the runners around the basepaths. Hamilton is batting .325 and slugging .667 with runners on. Wilson hit .356 and slugged .723 in 1930, and probably had similar numbers with men on base. Breaking the Wilson record would take a combination of Hamilton's RBI percentage and Derek Bell's opportunities. Say Wilson came to bat with 575 runners and drove in a quarter of them; that would make for 144 RBI. Add in his 56 RBIs on home runs and you've got 190. Something very close to this is likely what happened.
As well as Hamilton is doing, he probably won't get the chance to take on Hack this year. Though the Rangers have the most potent offense in the league, they haven't furnished Hamilton with quite enough baserunners. He currently ranks 11th in baserunners with 198, well behind major league leader Mark Teixeira's 222. If Hamilton had seen that many runners, he would have 75 RBI. Teixeira, not having his best season so far, has just 45, having plated only 16 percent of his runners. It may also be that in this down year for American League offense, whatever environmental factors that are suppressing hitting may not allow the Rangers to put enough runners on base to allow an assault on Mt. Hack. That said, the Rangers' offense would have been above average in 2007 as well.
Even so, at the current pace at which the Rangers are dispensing baserunners, so if they and Hamilton remain consistent, he will finish the season having seen just over 500 baserunners. Scoring 26 percent of those, plus having 40 RBI on home runs, would give Hamilton a total of around 170 RBI-a top-ten mark for a single season, but nowhere close to the record for either league (Lou Gehrig holds the AL title with 184 in 1931). Ironically, a very slight chance to the Texas batting order, one which had Milton Bradley and his .456 on-base percentage in front of Hamilton instead of behind him, might make all the difference.
Regardless of what happens, Hamilton's season will surely earn him some MVP votes, and is a triumph. The man could have simply given up. If he never breaks a record, it won't matter. Yet, what a perfect irony should he surpass Wilson-a record set by a man who was ultimately felled by his addictions being broken by a man who successfully held his at bay.